Trans-Saharan trade

Trans-Saharan trade is trade across the Sahara between Mediterranean countries and West Africa. While existing from prehistoric times, the peak of such trade extended from the eighth century until the late sixteenth century.

Increasing Desertification and Economic Incentive

The Sahara once had a very different environment. In Libya and Algeria from at least 7,000 BCE there was pastoralism, herding of sheep and goats, large settlements and pottery. Cattle were introduced to the Central Sahara (Ahaggar) from 4,000 to 3,500 BCE. Remarkable rock paintings (dated 3,500 to 2,500 BCE) from currently very dry places portray vegetation and animal presence rather different from modern expectations.Shillington, Kevin (1989, 1995). "History of Africa, Second Edition". St. Martin's Press, New York. Page 32.]

Before inquiring about locations of caravan routes and the ebb-and-flow of trade volume in Islamic times, it is essential to consider how such trade existed at all. The Sahara is a hostile expanse that separates the Mediterranean economy from the economy of the Niger basin. Fernand Braudel pointed out, such a zone, like the Atlantic Ocean, is only worth crossing in exceptional circumstances, when the gain outweighs the loss. [Braudel, Fernand (1984). "The Perspective of the World." (Vol III of "Civilization and Capitalism"). (Published in French in 1979).] However, unlike the Atlantic, the Sahara has always been home to groups of people practising trade on a local basis.Fact|date=April 2007

Trade in Islamic times was conducted by caravans of camels. These camels would be fattened for a number of months on the plains of either the Maghreb or Sahel before being assembled into a caravan. According to Ibn Battuta, the explorer who accompanied one of the caravans, the average size was a thousand camels per caravan, with some being as large as 12,000. [David Rouge, [ Saharan salt caravans ply ancient route] , Reuters, 21 February, 2007] [ [ An African Pilgrim-King and a World-Traveler: Mansa Musa and Ibn Battuta] ]

The caravans would be guided by highly paid Berber guides who knew the desert and could ensure safe passage from their fellow desert nomads.

The survival of a caravan would be precarious and rely on careful coordination. Runners would be sent ahead to oases so that water could be shipped out to the caravan when it was still several days away, as the caravans could not carry enough with them to make the full journey.Fact|date=April 2007

Early Trans-Saharan trade

The most ancient of the routes across the Sahara were to the west, where the Walata Road, from the Sénégal River, and the Taghaza Trail, from the Mali River, had their northern termini at the great trading center of Sijilmasa, situated in Morocco just north of the desert.Burr, J. Millard and Robert O. Collins, "Darfur: The Long Road to Disaster", Markus Wiener Publishers: Princeton, 2006, ISBN 1-55876-405-4, p. 6] The growth of the city of Aoudaghost, founded in the fifth century BCE, was stimulated by its position at the southern end of a trans Saharan trade route.Fact|date=April 2007

To the east, three ancient routes connected the south to the Mediterranean Sea. The herdsmen of the Fezzan of Libya, known as the Garamantes, controlled these routes as early as 1500 BC. From their capital of Germa in the Wadi Ajal, the Garamantean Empire raided north to the sea and south into the Sahel. By the fourth century BC, the independent city-states of Phoenecia had expanded their control to the territory and routes once held by the Garamantes. Shillington states that existing contact with the Mediterranean received added incentive with the growth of the port city of Carthage. Founded c. 800 BCE, Carthage became one terminus for West African gold, ivory, and slaves. West Africa received salt, cloth, beads, and metal goods. Shillington proceeds to identify this trade route as the source for West African iron smelting. [Shillington (1995). Page 46.] Trade continued into Roman times. Although there are Classical references to direct travel from the Mediterranean to West Africa (Daniels, p. 22f), most of this trade was conducted through middlemen, inhabiting the area and aware of passages through the drying lands. [Daniels, Charles (1970). "The Garamantes of Southern Libya". Oleander, North Harrow, Middlesex. Page 22.] The Legio III Augusta subsequently secured these routes on behalf of Rome by the first century AD, safeguarding the southern border of the empire for two and half centuries.

The westernmost of the three central routes was the Ghadames Road, which ran from the Niger River at Gao north to Ghat and Ghadames before terminating at Tripoli. Next was the easiest of the three routes: the Garamantean Road, named after the former rulers of the land it passed through and also called the Bilma Trail. The Garamantean Road passed south of the desert near Murzuk before turning north to pass between the Alhaggar and Tibesti Mountains before reaching the oasis at Kawar. From Kawar, caravans would pass over the great sand dunes of Bilma, where rock salt was mined in great quantities for trade, before reaching the savanna north of Lake Chad. This was the shortest of the routes, and the primary exchanges were slaves and ivory from the south for salt. The easternmost route was known as the Darb al-Arbain, or Forty Days Road. From Kobbei, 25 miles north of al-Fashir, the route passed through the desert to Bir Natrum, another oasis and salt mine, to Wadi Howar before proceeding to Egypt. [Burr and Collins, pp. 6-7]

Introduction of the Camel

Herodotus had spoken of the Garamantes hunting the Ethiopian Troglodytes with their chariots; this account was associated with depictions of horses drawing chariots in contemporary cave art in southern Morocco and the Fezzan, giving origin to a theory that the Garamantes, or some other Saran people, had created chariot routes to provide Rome and Carthage with gold and ivory. However, it has been argued that no horse skeletons have been found dating from this early period in the region, and chariots would have been unlikely vehicles for trading purposes due to their small capacity. Masonen, P: " [ Trans-Saharan Trade and the West African Discovery of the Mediterranean World.] "]

The earliest evidence for domesticated camels in the region dates from the third century. Used by the Berber people, they enabled more regular contact across the entire width of the Sahara, but regular trade routes did not develop until the beginnings of the Islamic conversion of West Africa in the seventh and eighth centuries. Two main trade routes developed. The first ran through the western desert from modern Morocco to the Niger Bend, the second from modern Tunisia to the Lake Chad area. These stretches were relatively short and had the essential network of occasional oases that established the routing as inexorably as pins in a map. Further east of the Fezzan with its trade route through the valley of Kaouar to Lake Chad, Libya was impassable due to its lack of oases and fierce sandstorms. [Lewicki, T. (1994). "The Role of the Sahara and Saharians in Relationships between North and South". In "UNESCO General History of Africa: Volume 3." University of California Press, ISBN 92-3-601709-6.] A route from the Niger Bend to Egypt was abandoned in the tenth century due to its dangers.Fact|date=April 2007

Trans-Saharan trade in the Middle Ages

The rise of the Ghana Empire, centered on what is now southern Mauritania, paralleled the increase in trans-Saharan trade. Mediterranean economies were short of gold but could supply salt, taken by places like the African salt mine of Taghaza, whereas West African countries like Wangara had plenty of gold but needed salt. The trans-Saharan slave trade was also important because large numbers of Africans were sent north, generally to serve as domestic servants or slave concubines. [ ['s_Trip_Twelve.html Ibn Battuta's Trip: Part Twelve - Journey to West Africa (1351 - 1353)] ] The West African states imported highly trained slave soldiers. It has been estimated that from the 10th to the 19th century some 6,000 to 7,000 slaves were transported north each year. [Fage, J.D. "A History of Africa". Routledge, 4th edition, 2001. pg. 256] Perhaps as many as nine million slaves were exported along the trans-Saharan caravan route. [ [ The impact of the slave trade on Africa] ] Several trade routes became established, perhaps the most important terminating in Sijilmasa and Ifriqiya in what is now Morocco to the north. There, and in other North African cities, Berber traders had increased contact with Islam, encouraging conversions, and by the eighth century, Muslims were traveling to Ghana. Many in Ghana converted to Islam, and it is likely that the Empire's trade was privileged as a result. Around 1050, Ghana captured Audaghost, but new goldmines around Bure reduced trade through the city, instead benefiting the Soso, who later founded the Mali Empire.

Unlike Ghana, Mali was a Muslim kingdom, and under it, the gold - salt trade continued. Other, less important trade goods were slaves, kola nuts from the south and slave beads and cowrie shells from the north (for use as currency). It was under Mali that the great cities of the Niger bend —including Gao and Djenné— prospered, with Timbuktu in particular becoming known across Europe for its great wealth. Important trading centers in southern West Africa developed at the transitional zone between the forest and the savanna; examples include Begho and Bono Manso (in present-day Ghana) and Bondoukou (in present-day Côte d'Ivoire). Western trade routes continued to be important, with Ouadane, Oualata and Chinguetti being the major trade centres in what is now Mauritania, while the Tuareg towns of Assodé and later Agadez grew around a more easterly route in what is now Niger.

The eastern trans-Saharan route led to the development of the long lived Kanem-Bornu empire centred on the Lake Chad area. This trade route was somewhat less efficient and only rose to great prominence when there was turmoil in the west such as during the Almohad conquests.

Decline of trans-Saharan trade

The Portuguese journeys around the West African coast opened up new avenues for trade between Europe and West Africa. By the early sixteenth century, European bases were being established on the coast and trade with the wealthier Europeans became of prime importance to West Africa. North Africa had declined in both political and economic importance, while the Saharan crossing remained long and treacherous. However, the major blow to trans-Saharan trade was the battle of Tondibi of 1591-2. Morocco sent troops across the Sahara and attacked Timbuktu, Gao and some other important trading centres, destroying buildings and property and exiling prominent citizens. This disruption to trade led to a dramatic decline in the importance of these cities and resulting animosity reduced trade considerably.

Although much reduced, trans-Saharan trade continued. But trade routes to the West African coast became increasingly easy, particularly after the French invasion of the Sahel in the 1890s and subsequent construction of railways to the interior. A railway line from Dakar to Algiers via the Niger bend was planned but never constructed. With the independence of nations in the region in the 1960s, the north–south routes were severed by national boundaries. National governments were hostile to Tuareg nationalism and so made few efforts to maintain or support trans-Saharan trade, and the Tuareg Rebellion of the 1990s and Algerian Civil War further disrupted routes, with many roads closed.

Traditional caravan routes are largely void of camels, but the shorter Azalai routes from Agadez to Bilma and Timbuktu to Taoudenni are still regularly - if lightly - used. Some members of the Tuareg still use the traditional trade routes, often traveling 1,500 miles and six months out of every year by camel across the Sahara trading in salt carried from the desert interior to communities on the desert edges. [National Geographic (2001). "Africa, Episode 2, "Desert Odyssey" (TV/Video). This episode follows a Tuareg tribe across the Sahara for six months by camel.]

The future of trans-Saharan trade

The African Union and African Development Bank support the Trans-Sahara Highway from Algiers to Lagos via Tamanrasset which aims to stimulate trans-Saharan trade. The route is paved except for a 200 km section in northern Niger, and border restrictions still hamper traffic. Only a few trucks carry trans-Saharan trade, particularly fuel and salt. Three other highways across the Sahara are proposed: for further details see Trans-African Highways.

ee also

*Trans-Sahara Highway



Further reading

:*Albert Adu Boahen, "Britain, the Sahara and the Western Sudan 1788-1861." Oxford 1964:*Edward William Bovill, "The Golden Trade of the Moors" (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 1995) ISBN 1-55876-091-1:*Donald Harden, The Phoenicians, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1971 (1962):*Kevin Shillington (eds), [ "Tuareg: Takedda and trans-Saharan trade"] from the "Encyclopaedia of African History", Fitzroy Dearborn, 2004, ISBN 1-57958-245-1:*B.H. Warmington, Carthage, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1964 (1960):* M'hammad Sabour and Knut S. Vikør (eds), " [ Ethnic Encounter and Culture Change] ", Bergen, 1997, [] Google Cache Last Retrieved Jan.2005.:* [ The Trans-Saharan Gold Trade 7th-14th Century] from the Museum of Modern Art:* [ The Trans-Saharan Trade]

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